IRL: Hemelgarn Racing flourishes under chief mechanic LaCava

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2000 - Among the more than two dozen chief mechanics in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series, Hemelgarn Racing's Dennis LaCava is king of the pits right now, having won the $25,000 Pennzoil Chief Mechanic...

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2000 - Among the more than two dozen chief mechanics in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series, Hemelgarn Racing's Dennis LaCava is king of the pits right now, having won the $25,000 Pennzoil Chief Mechanic of the Year Award. But talking to LaCava, you wouldn't really know it. The low-key LaCava said winning the award, which is presented to the chief mechanic of the Northern Light Cup-winning team, is a tremendous honor. But in typical character, LaCava humbly credits the Hemelgarn Racing crew and driver Buddy Lazier with his success and is already thinking about how to improve the team's stellar program for the 13-race 2001 Northern Light Series season. "Being considered one of the top chief mechanics, to be in that company, is an unbelievable honor," said LaCava, a native of Danbury, Conn. "I think of guys like Owen Snyder. I can remember watching him on television after he won Indy with Little Al (Unser Jr.). He was on that television commercial, and I can still almost recite the whole thing. "It's hard to believe. Really hard to believe." Snyder won the Indianapolis 500 as chief mechanic in 1992 with Unser and again in 1998 with Eddie Cheever Jr. Snyder also won the CART series championship with Unser in 1990. Lazier drove the #91 Delta Faucet/Coors Light/Tae-Bo/Hemelgarn Racing entry to six top-five finishes in nine races this season to clinch the Northern Light Cup and $1 million bonus. He finished the season 18 points ahead of runner-up Scott Goodyear. 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Lazier scored two victories this season, the first in the MCI WorldCom Indy 200 in March at Phoenix International Raceway when he drove from 26th and last at the start to the victory. The second win came in The Belterra Resort Indy 300 in August at Kentucky Speedway. A high-profile top-five finish came at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, when Lazier chased 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Montoya to the line to finish second. Since winning in 1996 at Indy, Lazier has finished an incredible fourth (1997), second (1998), seventh (1999) and second (2000) at the "500," which is one of the greatest annual tests of man and machine. LaCava has been an important figure in building and maintaining that consistency since joining Hemelgarn Racing in 1997. His abilities were put to the test in 2000, making tough choices and overcoming tough odds to put his team in contention for the Northern Light Series championship throughout most of the season. Hemelgarn Racing started the 2000 season with the new Riley & Scott chassis. The team and Lazier enjoyed immediate success, finishing second in the season-opening Delphi Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway and winning at Phoenix despite new-car teething problems. After testing the Riley & Scott car at Indianapolis in early spring, LaCava said the team decided it was in its best interest to make a bold move and switch to the proven Dallara chassis starting with the Indianapolis 500. Not only did the team have to prepare for the biggest and most prestigious race in the world, but it had to get used to a brand-new car, only weeks before the Speedway opened for official Indianapolis 500 practice. "We felt it was a good move," said LaCava. "We wanted to win, and we were up for the challenge if that's what it was going to take to get it done. A race car is a race car from a certain standpoint, but they (the Riley & Scott and Dallara) reacted quite differently to different changes. "We worked with Dallara before. They are a great bunch of people, as are the Riley & Scott people. Everybody put their heads together, and we thought it out. There might have been some luck on our side, and off we went." Hemelgarn Racing proved that its gamble was a wise choice with a second-place finish at Indianapolis, in a race that saw Lazier turn the fastest lap of the race, 218.494 mph, on Lap 198 as he tried in vain to cut into Montoya's lead. Lazier took the Northern Light Cup points lead at Indianapolis and maintained it with a seventh-place finish at the Casino Magic 500 on June 11 at Texas Motor Speedway. But the team faced a disheartening setback at the next race, the Radisson Indy 200 on June 18 at Pikes Peak International Raceway when Lazier's engine failed on the first lap of the race. Lazier finished in last place. Race winner Eddie Cheever Jr. took over the points lead while Lazier was fortunate to drop only to second place in the points. Although the Hemelgarn team could have very easily lost confidence over such a bad showing, LaCava said the team and Speedway Engines, the team's engine builder, regrouped quickly. "It killed us as far as what could have been there (Pikes Peak)," he said. "But it also lit a fire. You don't have control over everything, and this is what we were dealt. It made everybody think, 'OK, we're going to work twice as hard to make sure we're there next time.' We could have gone to Atlanta and had the same thing happen, but it didn't, and we were sure that everything we did to prepare was proper. It was what you have to do at every race, really." The team responded with a second-place effort at the Midas 500 Classic on July 15 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. In an ironic twist of fortune, Cheever had engine problems at Atlanta and finished 21st, handing the points lead back to Lazier. After winning The Belterra Resort Indy 300 on Aug. 27 at Kentucky Speedway, all Lazier and Hemelgarn Racing needed to win the championship was to finish 13th or better at the Excite 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Lazier did much more. He led 38 laps, was in the lead pack for most of the race and finished fourth. Some observers didn't expect Lazier's aggressive drive, which surprises LaCava. "We were there to race, we're a bunch of racers," he said. "You can crash the car just as easily trying to stay out of somebody's way as if you could trying to race for the lead. We were there to race and race for the lead, so why not do that?" In the midst of the relief and winning the championship, LaCava, ever the perfectionist, still felt the team could have had better results at Texas. "Once it (the championship) was done, it was a tremendous relief," he said. "I was pretty pumped up. We had a good race going, and I wanted to fare a little better in the race. We made a couple mistakes, with a miscue on a pit stop and some miscommunications in the pits. It is stuff like that we need to work on next year. But, all in all, we had a good weekend." Looking ahead at the 2001 Northern Light Series season, LaCava said the team's goal is to improve on their existing program. "We plan to get on with testing and hopefully get into new cars and see what comes up in development," he said. "We'll try to improve what we've got and make it more reliable. We will also do what we can to make Buddy more comfortable in the car. "If he can feel like he's driving around 465 (the Interstate highway loop around Indianapolis) the whole time he's in the car, then he's going to be the best he can be." He also predicts that due to the compact nature of the 2001 season (13 races in six months), team organization is going to be the key to success. "Being more prepared is going to play a bigger part," he said. "It's going to make it neat. You're going to see who's prepared and who's not prepared. You can plan out some things if you're smart enough to make things go smooth, and it will make it fun." That quiet planning is the link between LaCava's personality and the team's success, team owner Ron Hemelgarn said. "Dennis is a very honest, hard-working, persevering mechanic," said Hemelgarn. "He's a total perfectionist and will do whatever it takes to make the car perfect. He doesn't rush anything. Dennis doesn't have to say much because he leads by example. He's working hard every minute, so consequently his team members aren't sloughing off either. "I appreciate Dennis' dedication and hope he stays with us for many years to come. I just leave him alone and let him do what he knows how to do." With that kind of confidence, trust and hard work, LaCava will be a favorite to be the first repeat winner of the Northern Light Series' Pennzoil Chief Mechanic of the Year Award in 2001.

-IRNLS/IMS-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Eddie Cheever , Buddy Lazier , Scott Goodyear